Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Comic Book Review | The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

Fancy having your heart broken, folks? Look no further than The Underwater Welder!

If there's a contemporary comic book creator in greater demand than Jeff Lemire is these days, then I pity the poor person. The Canadian writer and artist has been busier than ever since DC reinvented itself with the New 52 late last year: in addition to his dual duties on Sweet Tooth, he committed to scripting several other monthlies, and as much as I've enjoyed his take on Animal Man, and to a lesser extent Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE - the jury's still out on Justice League Dark - this original graphic novel is emblematic of Lemire's inimitable talents in a way nothing has been since The Nobody in 2009.

In point of fact, Lemire was hard at work on The Underwater Welder as early as ought eight, even before his meeting of minds with the editors at Vertigo. This, then, is a labour of love, and how apt it is that this sublimely soulful story about the love lost and won between fathers and sons has heart from the start.

Jack Joseph works as an underwater welder on an oilrig off the coast of Nova Scotia, repairing pipes and the like on the ocean floor, the only place he knows he can go to be at peace. At peace with his tortured past, his high-pressure present, and all the responsibilities of tomorrow... because Jack has a baby on the way, and a partner who needs him - now more than ever - at home.

But home is not where Jack's heart is, so before the baby is born, he slips off for one last dalliance in the sea's deep darkness. So ensconced, and starved of oxygen, he spots - or not - the strangest thing: a rusted old pocket watch that reminds him of the only real gift given him by his drunken dad, who died while diving for forgotten objects on Halloween twenty years ago.

I don't want to say much more about the plot of Lemire's latest, and in any event, The Underwater Welder's core focus is on character. On a man out of his depth, and floundering; a man coming to terms with the loss of his father on the eve of becoming a father himself. Come to that, calling him a character simply doesn't cut the mustard: Jack Joseph rings so absolutely true that he feels less like a creation than a memory - a feeling, even - given form and voice. He has haunted me ever since I began this incredible graphic novel.

As has Lemire's harrowing art. His pencils and inks are not now, nor have they ever been, for everyone. You could say they're an acquired taste: some panels look like raw roughs rather than finished images, and rendered in stark black and white, as they are in The Underwater Welder, I'm afraid there's no getting away from this issue. Everything is on display in this 200+ page paperback — for better or for worse, depending upon your preference.

For me? For better, for sure. I wouldn't trade Lemire's art for all the Alex Ross in the whole wide world. His mastery of atmosphere is unparallelled; his sense of composition truly beautiful to behold. There are astonishing spreads at the beginning and end of each the four sections. There is imagery - of ripples in water, the lost pocket watch, and our man examining himself in the rear view mirror - imagery that becomes exponentially more powerful with every recurrence. And in the interim, a quiet riot of unassuming panels that wordlessly tell The Underwater Welder's tale as adeptly as any amount of text.

I was not prepared to be as affected as I was by The Underwater Welder, nor will you be, no matter how many times I tell you that it's as seminal as comic books come: a subtle thing, all suggestion and implication, yet markedly more moving than it would otherwise be because of the magnificent way Lemire leaves the most meaningful things about it unsaid.

Make no mistake, The Underwater Welder is the greatest work to date of one of the greatest talents in the industry today. It's all I can do to urge you: read it - and if you're anything like me, weep - immediately.


  1. AHHH!! You beat me to reading Underwater Welder! It is next on my to read pile. I can't wait. I'll read your review once I've had a chance to read the graphic novel for myself. Judging from your opening remarks, I get the idea that you were a fan, which I'm happy to see.

    1. That I was! Wonderful stuff, this one. We'll compare notes when you've had a chance to read it, but you owe it to yourself, good sir, to do so soon. :)

    2. Just started it on the bus today. Only a little ways in though, but I can already say that artistically, it is his best work yet. Gotta read more of the story to make a call on the writing half.

  2. Lemire is writing Animal Man at the moment - Swamp Thing is Snyder's stomping ground.

    But pedantry aside, I've been meaning to check out some of Lemire's work where he is both the writer and the artist. Def' gonna give this a look.

    1. Oh god, you're right! I'm such a numpty.

      Fixed! Can we pretend that didn't happen?

      Much as I've enjoyed Animal Man, then, and his run on Superboy before the New 52, if you ask me, this is the real Jeff Lemire. This is the artist in his element - and no-one does it better.

    2. Ty-real, I'll put in my two cents for Lemire. He's one of the best in comics when you look at his independent work. His stuff for DC proper doesn't hold a candle to Essex County, or Sweet Tooth. I hope you enjoy!

  3. The themes here are amazing. I would like to see an easier way to search with more relevant results. i.e. when I search autumn, I really don't want to find Assassins Creed or Warrior girl...just a pretty autumn seasonal theme for my background.